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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles with Cameras Help Search for Katrina Survivors

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GULF COAST, Miss., Sept. 20 -- Providing the benefits of speed, portability and access, a pair of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) surveyed storm-damaged communities in Mississippi as part of the search for trapped survivors of Hurricane Katrina. In what is one of the first deployments of such craft for disaster search and rescue, the vehicles captured video imagery to help responders focus efforts and avoid hazards.
The unmanned aerial vehicle T-Rex searches wreckage for survivors in Pearlington, Miss., following Hurricane Katrina. The vehicle is operated by the Safety Security Rescue Research Center, one of the National Science Foundation's Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers. (Photo: SSRRC)
"The two UAVs packed a one-two punch," said Robin Murphy of the University of South Florida (USF) and director of the National Science Foundation (NSF)-supported Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue. "The fixed-wing provided a quick overview of an area over several miles, but the use of the miniature helicopter to hover by buildings and on roofs -- and to take off straight up -- really offers new functionality."

Florida emergency responders surveying Pearlington, Miss., asked the Safety Security Rescue Research Center (SSRRC) team to respond to reports of floodwater-stranded survivors. Murphy led the effort with other members of the SSRRC, an NSF-supported industry-university partnership between USF, the University of Minnesota and some defense and advanced technology companies.

An unmanned aerial vehicle operated by SSRRC team members captured this image of devastation in Pearlington, Miss., during a search for survivors of Hurrican Katrina. (Photo: SSRRC/ NSF)
Although houses pushed into the street during the storm surge blocked the entrance to Pearlington, the capabilities of the UAVs allowed the team to launch the aircraft from an open patch of road surrounded by downed trees and power lines. One of the UAVs is a 4-ft-long airplane with mounted video and thermal imagery cameras that can capture details from as far away as 1000 ft. Launched by hand, the craft provides rescuers with a broad overview of the disaster area. In part because of the ease of launch and minimal, five-car-length distance needed for landing, the fixed-wing UAV is much easier to deploy than its full-scale counterpart.

The same holds for the other UAV, a camera-equipped, miniature electric helicopter called a T-Rex. Provided by SSRRC partner Like90, the helicopter can hover at heights approaching 250 ft and zoom its camera to peer inside windows or scan distant rooftops. Within two hours, the vehicles provided responders with information showing that no survivors were trapped and the floodwaters from the cresting Pearl River did not pose an additional threat.

The vehicles are but two of many land- and aircraft operated by SSRRC, one of more than 40 NSF Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers. NSF provides a small investment to universities to start the centers, and industry partners bring additional investment and collaboration. NSF then maintains a supporting role with each center as it evolves over a period of up to 10 years.

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Sep 2005
defenseKatrinaNews & FeaturesNSFSSRRCUAVunmannedvehicles

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